Essays Janee Baugher, Jury Duty — August 23, 2011 19:32 — 6 Comments
Jury Duty – Janee Baugher
It’s Wednesday and I’m reporting for jury duty. As I approach Seattle’s downtown courthouse, I regard the statue of Lady Justice. She wears a blindfold for impartiality, and she carries a double-edged sword which symbolizes the court’s coercive power. The scales she grips are balanced, as in two sides to each case. Still, aren’t things always bound to tip one way or the other? The lighter side will lift, while the heavier side will lean towards earth.
The notice we received in the mail reads, “You have been randomly selected to serve as a juror…It is a crime for any person summoned for jury service to intentionally fail to appear as directed.” We show our paperwork and identification to the staff in the first floor jury room. We are issued badges, which we pin near our hearts. No names, just “JUROR” and “King County Superior Court” in red letters. My juror number corresponds to a bar code, which gets scanned when I check in and out during my two days of service. “This expedites things,” the staff at the jury assembly room say, “We mean no condescension.”
In the juror assembly room, three hundred blue chairs with autumnal patterns are arranged some back-to-back and some facing each other. Fluorescent track lighting casts shadows on the brown and green two-tone walls. Off to one corner a tidy kitchen is available for our use: refrigerator, microwaves, plastic cutlery. Vending machines line the back wall. Eleven television monitors are affixed to the walls, on which an instructional video of our nation’s legal system plays. The film’s narrator, Diane Sawyer keeps repeating the phrase, “You are an integral part of this system.”
Jury duty affords people with time to tap on laptops, read books, and work crossword puzzles, all while sipping coffee. One woman watches a DVD, others listen to their iPODs. An elderly man slumps in a chair and naps. Two hundred people civilly and silently share this common space until a voice from the overhead speakers welcomes us, thanks us for our patience, and invites us to shake hands with the people seated near us. Then we chatter like a mass of sparrows in a tree.
Once they call our numbers for jury selection, a group of us is escorted by a bailiff and we walk obediently into the foyer, are ushered into an elevator, and then down a corridor as he informs us we’ve been called for a criminal case. We are stoned with the gravity of the situation. We file into the courtroom, we raise our right hands and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help us God, and we conclude with “I do.” We’re each handed a paddle with a number. Here we have no names, just the paddle number by which the lawyers and judge call on us. On one hand our confessions are preserved this way, in anonymity, but really it’s about efficiency: quicker to call out numbers than to fumble over names. Better to keep us flat than enliven us with the names our loved use. We take a seat on the oak benches.
This particular case revolves around four matters: an altercation between neighbors in West Seattle, a woman, alcohol, and a gun. For the moment, the remainder of the story pivots on our supposition. The defendant, who must have elected to trial-by-jury, sits with his hands folded in his lap, beset by us, his peers. The plaintiff is not a person but the State. Almost immediately it’s clear that we will not be privy to much of the case’s details. Why was an attorney appointed to the defendant? Is he awaiting this trial in jail? Was he instructed to tie his thin blonde hair back into a ponytail and asked to don a coat and slacks? Did someone suggest that he look each one of us in the eye?
Three of my fellow potential jurors attempt to argue for their immediate release. First, a 35-week pregnant person reports that her physician advised her against serving on jury duty past 36 weeks. Then a physical therapist aide bemoans that he’s the sole provider for his family. And finally, a salesman argues that his prime business time is now, the month of April. The humorless judge isn’t impressed: After he assures the mother-to-be that the trial won’t last beyond a week, he inquires if the physical therapist aide had discussed juror-time-off-with-pay with his employer. Similarly, the judge turns to the salesman and asks if he had submitted a request to defer his jury duty until a more convenient time. After their collective “no,” the judge, smiling, welcomes all three jurors to his courtroom.
We are expected to disclose anything asked (the unique perspective of our personal narratives) to everyone in this courtroom: the judge and attorneys, our fellow jurors, and the accused. The prosecuting attorney starts by requesting we share our feelings about guns. We submit relevant factoids to the bench. Some of us are matter-of-fact and some of us sound as if we’re unloading great burdens. Juror #3, a suit-clad, middle-aged white man divulges that he owns a gun. “I have a wife and daughter and sometimes the police aren’t where you need them to be when you need them,” he says. Juror #1’s dad was a police officer. “They’ve seen a lot, therefore their testimony has the most credibility,” he states with confidence. Another juror was robbed at gunpoint, and she therefore believes that there should be stricter gun laws. Juror #9, a middle-aged postal worker with braided extensions in her hair adds, “Two of my nephews were murdered by people with guns.” Juror #17 raises her paddle, “Guns are killing machines and I’m against killing machines in all forms, from guns to fishing poles.” Another woman in the courtroom, Juror #23, admits to joining co-workers at target practice, and liking it. During this two-hour jury selection process, I learn more about these people’s backgrounds, beliefs, and fears than I know about my closest friends. I sense little reluctance with my fellow jurors in terms of their honesty.
The truths we stow inside ourselves are the unspeakable nuggets of what shapes us, and also the voices that narrate our personal philosophies. One juror in particular, Juror #17, voices her objection to sitting on a criminal case, “because of Washington State’s three-strikes law.” Consequently her vote could send the defendant to prison for life, without eligibility for parole. Ever. One man, who earlier conceded that he was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, chimes in, “If this were his third strike, then I’d find it difficult to convict him.” Juror #17 raises her paddle: “I will not be able to vote this defendant guilty, because of our three-strikes law and because I would not be apprised of the number of prior offenses, if any.” As the conscientious objector responds, “I didn’t realize that… but in truth I think I can be fair,” I think then about Lady Justice and how her balanced scales speak to a depiction of the ideal harmony between truth and fairness. But nothing’s ever entirely balanced. Are there equal participants in our country’s judicial system? Is there always a winner and a loser?
At the end of the first day back in the jury assembly room, I find it difficult to look at my fellow jurors. We have a commonality, these men and women and I: We all have addresses to which the jury summons was sent; we are each a citizen of this country; we are neighbors; and in our own ways we carry on in the tradition our country’s forefathers set. Throughout this civil duty, we are asked to respond sincerely, to verbalize our true admissions, the truth of our individual values, and our true convictions.
On the second day of jury selection, the defense attorney invites us to speak candidly about our history with alcohol and associations with alcoholism. Despite people’s usual taciturnity regarding personal matters – things they simply don’t want to discuss or things too deeply buried or political – today before the bench, this line-of-questioning begs our full cooperation. Two men, Jurors #5 and #20, confess to having been slapped with DWIs. For some people this type of interrogation requires them simply to articulate their concerns, but for others this situation forces them to substantiate cause-and-effect. For instance, superficial disclosure is one thing, like when Juror #18 laments, “My nephew was an alcoholic and died early, at 50.” But then the juror must expand on how her job as juror is colored by that experience, thereby arguing why she should or should not be selected for this case. “So,” she continues, “I was robbed of knowing my mother’s family.”
Each of us begins our lives tightly stitched-up, but when something terrible happens the stitch becomes compromised and darkness can slip in. We don’t want to remember how we came undone, so we tell the story as if we’re perfectly intact. It’s what we do to keep it together; it’s how we can go on. The juror who yesterday mentioned his dad was a police officer admits to an incident involving a neighbor shooting at a bird above his daughter’s head. It still nags at the juror and he wants stricter gun laws. After some words are exchanged between the attorney and juror, the juror finally concedes that he’s too emotional to be impartial on this case. The judge dismisses him.
If we’re chosen to participate as the final jurors, we will be subjected to the intimate details and the bright truths of the defendant’s alleged crime. In the poem, “Empty Space” by Amrita Pritam, the last line reads, “between truth and falsehood a little empty space,” and in that space a reprieve from responsibility and culpability, perhaps. Deceiving others starts with us deceiving ourselves. Deception is destructive, so at some point we must come clean, mustn’t we?
At the end of day two of jury selection, the attorneys finally pose the vital question: “Is there any reason why any of you feel that you’d be wrong for this particular trial?” Juror #21, in a small voice, confesses that she has a law degree and has just passed the bar exam. Juror #10 divulges that he’s assisting some local prosecutors on a civil case involving tax fraud, and Juror #13 expresses irritation that this is his sixth time being called to jury duty. After the defense attorney had interviewed everyone, the prosecuting attorney addresses Juror #17 about her previous statements. “Our three-strike system is still an issue for me,” she responds. The judge inquires if the juror could imagine a scenario where a person could be rightly convicted and incarcerated under the three-strikes law. “Yes, sir, I can imagine a reason.” “Do you still think you’d have a problem convicting, based on this issue.” “Yes, sir.” Juror #17 is thanked for her time and dismissed.
Jury duty marks a junction between our public and private sides, as we expose dimensions of ourselves before strangers. The lawyers and judge prod us while the accused man listens. We answer truthfully because we were asked to, we raise our right hands and swear on the Bible to respond impeccably. The defendant gets to hear from us our concerns, while deep down we grapple with the possible position of someday judging him. But today it is we who are directly judged, and with his lawyer’s guidance, he has more say than we. Yet I cannot help but feel relief that it’s his trial and not mine. Those of us incapable of objectivity cast judgment like stones across the courtroom, silent stones aimed squarely at the defendant, as if we know better than an entire judicial system. But like the poet William Cullen Bryant writes, “Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again,” we must do our duty, say it truthfully, and believe.
The answer isn't poetry, but rather language
- Richard Kenney